The Beatitudes spoken by Jesus commence the “Sermon on the Mount,” perhaps the longest and most comprehensive discourse anywhere in the Gospels. The only other discourse that might match it in length is Jesus’ wide-ranging address at the Last Supper in John chapters 14-17.
Before looking at the Beatitudes, we need to look at the Old Testament precedent that Matthew invokes with a considerable degree of sublety. Chapter 2 of Isaiah contains one of “the messianic visions” in the Book of Isaiah. Anyone vaguely familiar with the Old Testament will recognize it:
For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
The prophecy in Isaiah 2 anticipates a reign of peace, which is inaugurated by the Word, which shall go forth from Jerusalem (sound familiar?). The prophecy in Isaiah emphasizes a reign of peace: neither shall they learn war anymore.
The preface to this prophecy of Isaiah reads Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths (Isaiah 2:3). We need to familiarize ourself with Isaiah 2, because Matthew, in chapter 5, invokes it. Matthew begins his chapter with the words, Seeing the crowd, Jesus went up the mountain… and he opened his mouth and taught them.
Matthew’s allusion to Isaiah is an affirmation that Jesus is about to embark on a discourse that confirms his own status as a Messiah foretold in the Old Testament. The Sermon on the Mount is a discourse on Jewish teaching, and a commentary on Jesus ability to authoritatively interpret the Old Testament.
As if to confirm the parallel with Isaiah, Jesus begins his discourse with the Beatitudes, which highlight the pastoral and peaceful character of a good disciple. Jesus praises as “blessed” nine different traits of Christian discipleship. These traits are known as beatitudes, a term that the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as a state of bliss.
The nine beatitudes in Matthew can be divided into two classes: those who are blessed because they suffer for the Kingdom of God, and those who are blessed because they embrace a particularly virtuous disposition of character. I would venture that the beatitudes might seem a bit random, unless one were to read the prophecy in Isaiah 2 alongside. The prophecy in Isaiah helps us to understand the direction in which Jesus wants to point his disciples: towards the mountain of the Lord and the messianic kingdom.
I have presented the beatitudes by theme. Four of the beatitudes speak of those who suffer injustice of some sort:
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Five of the Beatitudes refer to character dispositions that Jesus finds particularly praiseworthy:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
These last five beatitudes are sometimes misunderstood. What exactly, does Jesus suggest when he says blessed are the meek? The Greek term for “meek” is praos. Perhaps a better translation is ‘gentleness of spirit.’ When Jesus says, “blessed are the gentle of spirit,” he is praising the ability to accept with serenity the realities and minor injustices of the day. Gentleness of spirit is the ability to “turn the other cheek.” It is the ability to forebear, and not to allow those who are selfish, unjust or over-bearing to affect our spiritual well-being.
Related to that virtue is “poverty of spirit,” which is another misunderstood term. Poverty of spirit is an open-ness to the will of God. It does not refer to suffering or economic poverty. Poverty of spirit is a humility that says, “I can do almost nothing on my own, and my circumstances may not appear very advantageous to me, but through faith in the Lord, I can accomplish much.”
Come, Let us climb the mountain of the Lord.
The nine beatitudes are counsel provide by Jesus to help us climb the mountain of the Lord. Here is the opening verse to the prophecy in Isaiah 2:
The word which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.